The departure from Draic’s Vale
“We need to get moving,” Morath reminded Bardic. “Over years of dodging demonic attacks and the like…”
“What demons have you been dodging?” Bardic asked, a trifle sceptically.
“…which are none of your business,” Morath hastened on, “I’ve learned to pay attention when friendly seers utter warnings.”
Suiting his actions to his words, Morath ducked past the snapping jaws of his mighty black stallion, grabbed the reins and vaulted up onto its back out of immediate harm’s way. He hung on grimly as the stallion tried to buck him off and grind his leg to powder against a nearby tree, then reined around ready to go.
“Yes, we should get going: flight east is our simplest course by far, with the red moon in the sky and any number of battle-crazed young tribesmen looking to slaughter Aquilonian stragglers,” Bardic agreed. He finished checking his saddlebags and harness and passed Zekias the lead rope to his spare horse.
“I wonder if we can get away with looking like non-Aquilonians?” wondered Celo. Bardic snorted.
“You are about the most Aquilonian looking man I’ve ever seen. Edric could maybe pass as something else and Morath could be anything. There’s no mistaking Hod, too: he’s obviously a Bossonian – why, if we cut off his head it would make a fine round ball once the hair was off!”
Hod seemed to take little offence at this rude remark, and contented himself with checking his own stowage. Kuruk trotted his pony east a little and looked up-trail. Night would fall late at this time of year and up in the hills, they might be able to travel overnight quite safely.
But just as the last horses were tethered to selected lead horses, one of the striplings approached Bardic. He stood proudly, arms folded in warrior stance. After a few seconds’ recollection, Bardic placed him: he was the fittest stripling, the lad that had helped the wounded in Cadroc’s vale.
“What is it, lad? Speak out – we’re pushed for time!”
“Uh, now that I’ve proved myself in battle – I mean I heard that you have many women – uh now I have come to full estate as a man I want permission to court one of your women?”
Bardic kept his face solemn. “I don’t own these women, lad. They are their own free agents. They’re under my protection.”
The lad nodded, blushing but sticking to his point:
“Aye, I know. That’s why I’m seeking your permission.”
“They are free women,” Bardic repeated. “It’s not up to me. But… they’re under my protection.”
Finally accepting the sub-text of Bardic’s answer the stripling made an abashed retreat, and the last riders mounted, and the caravan of seven men, a boy and 16 horses headed east, bound for Bardic’s home vale.
A scent and a silhouette
Returning up the trail through the hills leading to his own vale, Bardic decided to take care with the order of march. Owing to the number of horses, individual members might find themselves quite isolated. Bardic rode first, or walked where his superb gelding could not carry him. The evening was already deepening into full night: behind him, the moon was riding high. A rank scent, musky, familiar yet unfamiliar, came to his keen nostrils. His horse scented it and feared it too, that was clear. Urging all to be ready for anything, Bardic dismounted and continued upward.
With some relief, the caravan made the crest of the highest point and began winding downwards along the trails. Celo was near the end, riding only in front of Morath and his ill-tempered stallion. Glancing back, he saw a great silhouette against the moon: like that of an immense feline, yet hump-shouldered and brutish. It seemed to be watching them.
Laden with ladies
“Aye, so you’re back,” Bardic’s mother pronounced, “I began to think you would spare not a moment to bid me hail or farewell.”
“Aye mother, I must be brief: we are hunted by some weirding, and I fear to draw doom upon our village if I linger.”
“Well, and so you have conquered, my son.”
“I have! Draic is now secure and our Danann are no longer in danger of being hunted out of this life. And I have put an end to the stealing of children!”
“And Cadroc lies in the ground.”
“I just left his body lying where I cut it down – but the Callanach submitted to making a lasting peace, and I left them to their own devices; so they may have buried him.”
And with those few words, Bardic’s attention was once again subsumed in the bustle of assigning girls to horses. Of all the nine delectable, fur-wrapped dainties, only Illumina admitted to being any sort of horsewoman.
It seemed that they had not accumulated any baggage nor gathered ought but blisters and tired muscles in their sojourn. A high-stacked wood pile, immaculate floor, and sand-stoned sills and hearth attested to the work Bardic’s mother had tasked them to. No surprise then, that they had all swiftly assembled at his cry announcing departure!
Jealous were the glances as Bardic assigned girls to riders. Naysi he chose to ride up behind himself: and tightly she clutched him – no doubt with a smug look shared only with her rivals. Kuruk he gave no girl, for as he said:
“You ride behind me, ready to move past me into the open if need be. I don’t want you to worry about extra riders, and I’m not sure your pony can carry two.”
To Gollarn, riding third, Bardic assigned Quesillia and – on one of the two spares he led – Forjia. The two girls were both southerners, and Forjia, seemingly the bolder of the two, promised to try to ride on her own.
Edric rode next, with Zeze his pillion. She snuggled close. Sweat rose on the Mitran Friar’s brow: celibacy was a challenge. Then Zekias led one horse, Wist his pillion. Illumina, the lone rider amongst the girls, rode on a spare close to Zekias and Edric.
Celo, who along with Bardic was the best horseman, was given Tharvis as pillion and Lula on one of the two led horses; and finally Hod was assigned Chemis and led the last two spare horses.
“You’ll stay well to the rear again, Morath – we need a good rearguard and your horse can’t go anywhere near the girls,” Bardic explained. Morath nodded: that was what he had expected.
And so with several hours of the night to go, the caravan, now burdened with its lovely encumbrances, pushed off onto the same eastern trail that the Hyrkanians had taken with Vorel guiding them.
The whispering in the trees
Morath, Celo and Bardic kept their ears pricked. Travelling at night, on a reasonably well-traveled trail, they could trust their horses to scent the best path. Much of their course would lie along the fringe of the great forest. Villages there were used to dealing with outsiders bringing salt from Border Kingdom, and were less inclined to be hostile than most Cimmerian villages. The trail eventually led to Ymir Pass; and from there:
“You know the Ice Spear Road, Kuruk?” Bardic asked.
“Aye – Hieratgate south! Hiring, silver, gold!” The ugly little tribesman grinned, his facial ornaments glinting in the waning moonlight. “Edric’s enemies!” he added.
“Heads!” Celo called from far enough back that he was invisible.
“Quiet! I heard something!” Morath hissed loudly. Truth to tell he could barely hear what his fellows were calling back and forth, but something was moving in the trees. His stallion heard it too; or smelled it. Its ears were laid back and its eyes rolled balefully.
“We’ve been moving too slowly – let’s pick our pace up!” Bardic decided. Naysi squeaked and clutched tighter as his gelding moved to an uncomfortable trot. For some minutes the party proceeded thus.
Then from far behind, all heard the screaming neighing of the stallion’s challenge! Thuds, as of heavy hooves smashing into flesh, sounded loud: and Morath came racing on its back, calling:
“There are dozens of things in the trees! Some of them got around me but the black smashed them down! I don’t know what they were, but we must fly!”
As the horses all picked up speed, the girls clutched on for dear life, and whimpered.
Girls – and possibly the odd adventurer or two – screamed with terror as dimly-glimpsed manlike shapes launched themselves up out of the rocks and bushes beside the horses, as they passed through a hillside glade some hour later. The moon had been setting for some time now, and most of the men were fighting blind. Axes licked out at the riders, and swords chopped down at guessed-at attackers.
Bardic, to whose barbaric senses the night was no great penalty, placed the scent of the men he had killed, as his gelding broke free and surged eastward up the slope.
“Picts! They’re Picts! What in Crom’s name are Picts doing here?!”
He called a head-count. Some of his fellows were bleeding, but none of the horses seemed to be pulling up lame. Some guessed they had slain a copper-skinned savage or two, but Bardic cautioned:
“They take their fallen with them if they can – but in the dark, men count each foe twice and think a scratch a mortal wound. It’s more likely we merely cut a few. We must push on, no rest-breaks. Sorry girls,” he added as whimpers sounded here and there, “but with a blood-trail to follow they’ll come at a run.
“The good news is, we’ll hear them loud and clear!”
The first warband
Howls echoed up the trail. A savage baying, chilling to the blood with its promise of axes, slaughter and no mercy shown. The horses were urged to a frighteningly fast pace, and Lula and Forjia locked their fingers in the mane of their horses and yelped with every bounce. Zeze’s hands locked under Edric’s belt and her superbly-rounded form molded itself into his back. Again, sweat beaded his forehead.
“They can run faster than we can push the horses to!” Celo yelled. “What do we do?”
Making the decision to fight, Bardic waved Kuruk out past him, and turned his horse back.
Not merely Picts, but great-jawed war-hounds burst through the fringes of forest and surged around the assembling defenders! They threw themselves forward: the hounds going low, for the legs of horses and those on foot; the warriors high so as to overbear anyone unable to cut themselves free immediately.
Hod, with Chemis and a led horse to worry about, stayed in the saddle, using his battle-axe one handed. Celo wriggled free from Tharvis’ clutch and vaulted down, sword and dagger ready. Tharvis immediately fell off with a squeal and a thump, and Lula, trying to help her, followed her to the ground.
Hoping they stayed low, Celo ducked and sliced a savage away, then rolled under a dog’s leap, cutting up into its belly. Off west he could see the stallion, a black outline against the stars, rising from a mound of bodies, rearing and flailing its fore-hooves. Of Morath there was no sign: but Celo’s keen ears picked up the panicked wailing of a rogue in deep trouble!
“Morath’s down! I’m going back for him!”
Gollarn and Bardic heard the call, or the screams. Edric’s flint and steel flared and a torch shed some light around the central group of horses and girls and Zekias. Gollarn pulled himself away from Quesillia, dropped down beside Edric, and cut two hounds away from the Friar’s horse with a sweep of his broadsword. Picts leapt at him and the sword blurred once more. Nearby Bardic jockeyed his horse past, cutting right and left as hounds or savages reached for him, then dismounted where Zekias could look after his horse: or would have, had not Naysi grappled him even more tightly!
“Crom, girl! I have to get off!”
Her only answer was to bury her head tighter against his broad back and to clutch tighter. But at length, and by main strength, he prised her grip loose and slid out of the saddle, pulling his great-sword free of its scabbard. And with his blade added to Gollarn’s the hounds were swiftly dealt with and the remaining Picts around the central defense cut down.
Celo reached into the pile of bodies near the black stallion, making sure that most of them were between he and the black. Its eyes were glowing red in the starlight, like some beast of hell, and it sounded a warning snort. He felt for civilized garments, and found Morath. A groaning voice sounded:
“Get me… the Hell away from that beast!”
“Edric! Morath’s alive! I’m bringing him back!”
Dragging the stricken rogue back to Edric, Celo glanced around. He could pick out Kuruk, still mounted, who had circled back to shoot at exposed targets, but few other details. There could be five warbands waiting their turn to attack! Skin crawling, he supported Morath back as quickly as he could to where the torch-light marked Edric. The Friar checked for breaks and deep wounds, frowning in concern; and then his brow cleared:
“Why Morath, this is just some bruising – you fell off?”
“JUST SOME BRUISING?!?! THAT %(*&*(&@! HELL-BEAST NEAR KILLED ME!!!”
It was difficult, nay impossible, for Morath’s fellows to feign sympathy, but they kept their chuckles to a minimum. At least the black now had a tentative name.
“Oh you can call it Hell if you want,” Morath snarled back at Celo as the Tauranian set off to link with Kuruk to rein in the stallion once more. “But I’ve got another name for it if it does that again:
Half-light arrived at last. The posse was making its weary way up yet another hill-slope. At the center of the train, Edric and Morath were swaying in their saddles and the girls rising spares were worse, slumped over sleeping as best they could: save for Illumina who seemed to be almost enjoying her independence. Kuruk had had to take Lula, and rode at the van. His pony was definitely laboring. Bardic rode second now. Celo rode “Hell” at the rear: once lassoed by Kuruk it had accepted its return to captivity and he had mounted without getting bitten. Which was no small feat, he reflected with satisfaction.
“We must halt at the top,” Edric called to Bardic. “I need time to make my devotions to Mitra.”
Reluctantly Bardic accepted the necessity. Morath was near-dead, and truth to tell, the wounds he had suffered fighting Cadroc had yet to heal and his own body screamed for rest and healing.
Kuruk indicated a good bald hillock on the hill-crest, shielded from the biting wind by a few rocks, but offering excellent visibility. The party dismounted. An unladylike variety of distorted gaits and poses and whimpered curses at raw buttocks or thighs ensued.
Bardic grinned. He stepped to the north-eastern quadrant of the hillock and blinked into the wind. The line of white-capped ranges marked the border. He could even guess where Ymir Pass would be, though they were yet days away from it. The deep forest spread south, and lighter-treed valleys sprawled north. If there were Cimmerian villages nearby, they were invisible. Celo stepped up to his right, using the Cimmerian’s bulk as shelter from the wind.
“So we keep going east? Forest doesn’t seem to be our friend!”
“Every way we go, there’s forest,” Bardic pointed out reasonably. “We’re not deliberately riding into the depths: the trail has swung north to keep clear of the deep woods. The forest edges offer firewood, shelter and trading villages, remember.”
“Sure, maybe, but we have to take the chance…”
“No, enemies now! Look!”
Celo pointed: below to the south-east, birds had been startled from their roosting, bursting up through the mist-laden treetops.
“Manannan take them,” Bardic cursed. “They’ve gotten round us through the forest!
“We’ll make a stand!” Bardic decided. “This is a good place for it. Kuruk! Ride clear and do what you do! You others: dismount! All women and horses to the middle!”
The second warband
The waiting was unnerving: although it offered as good a defense as they were likely to find, the hillock lacked a clear line of sight to every approach. Baying and yelling surrounded them.
“Fear not,” Edric encouraged them, “Mitra is blessing me once more.” Beside him Morath readied his blade: he felt a great deal better. He marked where Celo and Kuruk were, ready to match their tactics.
Picts leaped up to the hill crest and rushed them en masse: hounds raced in to menace the horses. Bardic and Gollarn’s blades swung and gore washed across them: four Picts fell almost immediately. On the other side of the defence, Celo leaped off the great black, well clear of its jaws, and stabbed and cut as the stallion bit and beat two hounds to death. Kuruk urged his weary pony into motion again, but hounds clamped their jaws on its legs, tripping it. The Hyrkanian rolled clear, as Morath darted forward, and they both stabbed the hounds: the pony rolled to its feet, looking wildly annoyed: Kuruk returned to his saddle in the same moment. Bardic spotted the Picts’ leader: he cut his way through three more Picts to get to him, and cut him down. Behind Bardic Gollarn and Hod cut down two more from around Edric. The stallion, wheeling, stomped the remaining hound into ruin as Celo slew the last Pict.
“How many more of them are there?” Celo gasped. He had taken a few cuts this time, though nothing to worry about.
“Who knows? Everyone all right? Edric?”
“I’m well enough. Let’s move.”
Claws in the trees
Although it was early morning, the deeper glades were still dark. Reluctantly, they followed the trail into one such. The thick summer canopy near-enclosed the glade. Barely a glimmer of light showed above. Straining all their senses, they rode on.
A sawing, coughing roar came from the trail ahead: Kuruk’s pony and Bardic’s gelding both balked and shied. A whispering, scratching sound came from all around.
“We’re under attack! Devils in the trees! Beware the claws!” Morath screamed, attempted to maneuver “Hell” towards the others, and fell off. Instantly the black turned on him, stomping and biting: Morath’s screams were pitiful. Then the others had more to worry about:
Weird misshapen creatures poured from every part of the forest around them. It was hard to tell what they could be: vaguely seen and seeming to disappear amid the leafy darkness. Whether they had beaks, or gaping jaws; eyes, or one huge eye, it was impossible to say. Claws were the most obvious weapon, and as they threw themselves in waves upon the defenders who attempted to rally back to the center, the party was overwhelmed in the instant of attack.
Then bursting from a pile of them, Bardic rose: his great blade cut through four. Gollarn likewise hacked two-handed, cutting his way clear. They pulled their horses clear and back towards Edric.
Or where Edric should be: for he too was buried under clawing bodies that seemed to be furred, or horned, or leathery. His dagger stabbing, the Friar struggled back to his feet, shielding Zeze as best he could. Zekias, Wist, Illumina and Chemis were overwhelmed by a mass of devils. Celo dodged and rolled clear of Tharvis as best he could, stabbing out, felling one. The mere fact that they could be slain was heartening. He sighted where Hod should be – another mound of devils – and stabbed where one seemed to be. Hod, chopping up in short, two-handed strokes, surged to his feet too.
At the other end of the posse, “Hell” reined supreme: devils that mobbed it had to contend with hooves and teeth of death. Knowing that playing dead was asking to get stomped again, Morath dodged clear and drew his sword. For a moment he made as though to use it on the stallion, then he too was mobbed by devils and concentrated only on staying alive.
One moment, the glade echoed and re-echoed with desperate fighting: screams of horses, women and men: snarling and screeching of devils, and the sound of blade and claw cutting flesh. Then it was silent: and only the panting of the survivors could be heard.
Then Edric rose and lit another torch against the gloom, calling:
“Who’s alive? Who’s fallen? Are we still alive?”